Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

The Horse Exhibit Artifacts: Where are They Now?

We recently took down The Horse in North Dakota exhibit. Some colleagues and I have written about how we produce an exhibit (Part 1 and Part 2), getting the horse-drawn fire wagon into the building, trying to find artifacts for display, research about artifacts, and how we clean those artifacts. These blogs brought to your attention just a few of the artifacts we used in The Horse exhibit.

I thought I would share with you what happens to these pieces now that they are off exhibit.

For most artifacts, we check the condition report completed on the artifact prior to the exhibit. The condition report includes a description of the artifact describing all damage such as chips, dings, scraped paint, frayed edges, tears, fading of colors, insect activity, or whether something like a button on a garment is missing. When we see no changes to the item’s condition after being on exhibit, the object goes back to its storage location. We note that movement in the database and then move on to the next item. But for a few artifacts, it is not so easy.

The horse-drawn fire wagon was probably the most complicated piece to move. Bryan Turnbow, in his Jan. 27, 2020, blog, talked about how we had to use a forklift and our platform loading dock lift to get our fire wagon into the building. We, of course, had to reverse the process to get it out of the museum. It is a bit nerve racking to see such an important artifact suspended over the edge of the platform lift being held only by the tines of the forklift. Both lifts were slowly lowered with staff members standing by as spotters to make sure nothing went wrong.

loading fire truck into the building

Fire wagon being lowered with platform lift and forklift (1988.178.11)

I would love to say we have a wonderful enclosed trailer to safely transport the wagon to our off-site storage, but we don’t. Instead, we needed to wait for a nice day and use an open trailer. This also created moments of trepidation. An open trailer leaves the object open to many possible problems from a passing bird, to road debris kicked up from other vehicles, to the wind pulling on parts, or our worst nightmare, its falling off the trailer. All parts of the wagon were double-checked to make sure everything was secure. The tie downs were checked and double-checked to make certain they all were secure, and off they went . . . slowly. Bryan Turnbow said he “drove like I was driving Grandma around: drove slower, braked sooner and gradually, and took the smoothest roads.”

first truck on trailer

Fire wagon on trailer

hauling fire truck

Fire wagon going down the road

Fire truck in storage

Fire wagon in its new home

With the skills and planning of our Audience Engagement & Museum team and just a little luck, the fire wagon reached the off-site storage, a 5.5-mile trip, safely. It now sits in preparation for the next exhibit or research opportunity.

When we checked the condition report on a few objects, the condition of some items had changed. Melissa Thompson, in her Aug. 6, 2018, blog titled “Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit,” showed how she cleaned artifacts that had green corrosion product and spue (fatty acid blooms). Most of these items that had been cleaned beforehand were great when we pulled them off exhibit, but a few were not. Stock saddle 2007.89.1 was found with a fresh outbreak of spue. According to our records, a condition report was done on the saddle in March 2008 when the item was initially brought into the collection, and spue was removed at that time. In preparation for the exhibit, another condition report was done July 2018, and it was cleaned again. When we took it off exhibit a couple of weeks ago, I noticed more white spue and had to clean it for a third time before I put it back into storage. These condition reports indicate that the item seems to have frequent fatty acid blooms, so now I have this item flagged so I can check it at least yearly to see if more spue shows up and clean it if necessary. While the spue is not damaging, it is unsightly and could attract and hold on to dirt that could be damaging. Cleaning it regularly is important for long-term preservation.


Stock saddle after second cleaning (2007.89.1)

riding habit

Medora's riding habit (1972.383.1-.2)

kids cowboy shirt

Child’s cowboy shirt (2011.30.66)

colorful Metis sash

Métis sash (1986.234.62) on capote (5301)

For a few items the condition reports were fine, and putting them away would not have been a problem; BUT we didn’t need to put them back into storage. They were going back on exhibit in the upcoming exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style. Visitors to The Horse in North Dakota exhibit will recognize Medora’s riding habit, the child’s cowboy shirt, spurs, leather cuffs and a few more. We see these as a bonus since we won’t have to put them away, nor do we have to put them on a mannequin. Of course, we did double-check the condition report to make sure that things were still good. We did change how the Métis sash is going to be displayed—we put it onto a capote (5301) to complete the look.

Artifacts going on exhibit go through many steps to ensure they can be safely displayed. When they come off exhibit, they go through more to make sure they were exhibited safely. There are many behind-the-scenes steps that happen for each artifact for every exhibit. When you see the new exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style (opening in January 2021), you will have a better understanding of how we have planned, primped, moved, and built another exciting exhibit for you to enjoy.

Imagine: The Rewards and Challenges of Beginning as the New Director During COVID-19

Imagine the exhilaration of landing your dream job at one of the leading institutions in your profession. Then, the less exciting tasks of selling your current home, saying goodbye to your award-winning team, and relocating to the other end of the country for your new job on an award-winning team. Throw in the additional excitement of settling into your routine in a new state, purchasing a new home, learning all about your role and the complex organization you now lead. Just think of the exciting new challenges – learning about your coworkers, getting to know how the organization functions, the kinds of things it does, the people it reaches, and of the amazing places you will go. It’s like the first day at an exciting new school, or that first day of college!

A man in a suit bends down on one knee and uses one hand to reach out and touch a gray and white decorative circle on the ground that says IMAGINE in the middle

Bill Peterson, State Historical Society of North Dakota Director

Now imagine doing all of that in the middle of the current pandemic. Saying goodbye to the old team was sad. Instead of an emotional hug over a cold beer with people you loved, mentored, and wielded the mighty sword of history with, it was online. It should have been battle-scarred history warriors enjoying a celebratory victory lap with cheers, back slaps, and grandiose tales of unimaginable valor. But it was something else. We still nailed it—we laughed, we cried, we said our goodbyes, and gave our well wishes. But the whole thing was dimmed by COVID-19 virtuality and the flatness of Zoom. We didn’t get fist bumps, and we will never get to have those hugs. Historians will never look fondly upon those pictures. I will never reminisce over those photos of treasured friends and colleagues in our final moments together because they don’t exist.

Fast forward to the first day of that amazing new job. I still rely a great deal on what I can observe. On those first days at the ND Heritage Center, I saw nothing really. There were no people working here, and there were no visitors. It was a modern, post-apocalyptical ghost town. I did observe just how clean and secure the Heritage Center was though. If civilizations from alien worlds were observing us in those days in early June, they would have watched custodial teams cleaning the building to a spotless perfection and the security teams constantly monitoring cameras and installing body temperature scanning systems in the hope of future visitors. The word “eerie” comes to mind.

A man mops the floor in a room shaped like a box with all glass windows.

Custodian Josh Masser mopping the terrazzo floor of the Northern Lights Atrium.

The ND Heritage Center & State Museum reopened to the public June 22. My first official day, after spending weeks with outgoing director Claudia Berg, was July 1. I was able to meet more and more of the staff as they came in from their remote locations to pick up work or to drop off something. They were a bit like science fictional scouts or prospectors returning to the ship for supplies and immediately heading back out to the frontier. Some staff are now back in the building full-time, but there are still team members I have yet to meet in person who are continuing to telecommute. Learning everyone’s name was a challenge for me. I had to work at it. And now, it was all for nothing. Bank robbers wear masks for a reason—they work. I am almost back to square one with learning the names behind the masks.

These first months have taught me just how much I have to learn about North Dakota. Nothing is quite as good at reminding me of my intellectual inadequacies as the bookshelf in my new office. It is quite the bully at 16 feet long by 6 feet tall. I have never had a problem filling a professional bookshelf or case with more than enough materials to impress your average professional. I read. A lot. Yet the hulking, half-full bookshelf mocks me. Constantly lurking behind me, growling sinisterly in my ear in its Stephen King- inspired voice, “I’M NOT FULL! Why am I not sagging beneath of the weight of North Dakota knowledge containers?” The bully never stops. It’s sulking hungrily behind me as I write.

A man wearing glasses and a gray suit stands looking to the side with a very large, mostly empty, bookcase behind him

I think I just heard the bookcase say, “FEED ME."

In late July and early August, I traveled to our various historic sites to meet the rest of the teams. They opened to the public as planned on Memorial Day weekend. On these trips, I learned so much and met some of the best history professionals imaginable. We manage some of the most amazing history sites in all the land. I learned another thing about the State Historical Society of North Dakota on those trips too. We love to mow grass. I think we mow the whole state. I am told people love us for this. The grass selfishly kept right on growing during the whole summer. Maybe it is a bit of a bully, too.

A field of mowed grass

Grass, the bully at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

A view looking from a porch with a bench out to a large mowed area with buttes in the background

Grass, the bully at the Chateau de Morés State Historic Site.

An outdoor view of a large area of mowed lawn with three white buildings and a lake in the background

The green bully at Welk Homestead State Historic Site.

It’s been challenging, but I am learning. This is an amazing institution, staffed by an incredible team of professionals. They are doing great work despite the challenges of COVID-19. I am overjoyed to be here and looking forward to all of the amazing places we will go together. I still can’t see a lot of how things are getting done, but I see the great results.

I know a lot of people have been severely damaged and lost loved ones to COVID-19. Through it all I have been very fortunate, and I am grateful that my wife, Susan, and I have fared so well while so many have struggled. We are delighted to be in North Dakota. If I haven’t met you yet, I look forward to making your acquaintance soon. When you feel comfortable coming to the building, stop in and say hello. To guarantee safe passage, I would bring a book to feed the monster in my office.